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Tory plans for reforming Whitehall

Oliver Letwin gave an interesting and under-reported signal about Whitehall reform during his talk to the ConservativeIntelligence conference two weeks ago.

The Party is committed to the following changes if elected:

  • A new National Security Council (re-establishing in the process the seniority and clout of the Foreign Office, since the Foreign Secretary will chair it in the Prime Minister’s absence).
  • A new Social Justice Council or Committee.
  • Keeping the Party’s Policy Board in place. (Nick Boles has confirmed that he will no longer attend Board meetings after the general election.)
  • Making the Health Department a department of Public Health – as more spending decisions move to a new NHS board.
  • Publishing all Government spending of over £25,000 on the net.
  • Reviewing all quangos.
  • Cutting the number of Ministers.
  • Curbing the number of Special Advisers.

In addition, it’s possible – as part of  the Post-Bureaucratic Age drive - that Whitehall rules for approved suppliers will be torn up; that new non-executive members of departmental boards will be able to recommend that poorly performing Permanent Secretaries be sacked, and likely that the new Prime Minister and Chancellor will in effect work from the same Downing Street base.

Inevitably, proximity to government brings speculation about further government reform and departmental restructuring.  Ideas floated have included –

  • Refocusing the Department of Children, Schools and Families on schools by removing family policy from the department – thereby re-establishing it as an old-fashioned Department of Education.
  • Dismantling Mandelson’s BIS empire by returning Universities to the reformed Education Department.
  • Creating a new Department of Social Justice (A Conservative Intelligence poll also found that 44 per cent of a cross-section of journalists and politicians expect such a Department to be created within the first 100 days of a Conservative Government.)
  • Merging Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into a single department.
  • Cutting the size of Cabinet.
The list of potential Whitehall reforms is as long as your arm.  For example, and more or less off the top of my head, there’s a case for moving Security, Intelligence and Resilience from the Cabinet Office to the Home Office.

However, Oliver indicated to the Conference that the Party wants to keep departmental restructuring to a minimum.  Although he didn’t set out his reasons at length, the rationale is surely as follows.  There’s a budgetary crisis.  A new Conservative Government must focus on cutting the deficit “like a laser beam”.  There can and must be no distractions.  Re-shuffling the administrative deckchairs would be a waste of time and energy.  Under Labour, there’ve been too many shuffles, mergers, and re-brandings.  We mustn’t repeat the mistake.

My best guess (and I could well be wrong) is that Universities will stay where it is, and that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland won’t be merged into a single Department.  (With less Conservative representation in these three parts of the UK than in England, a new Conservative Government will surely want to demonstrate that it takes all parts of the Union seriously.)

Perhaps the most attention-drawing issue is the future size of a post-election Conservative Cabinet.  One school of thought holds that the smaller any Conservative majority is, the greater the likelihood of a small Cabinet.  After all, Cabinets become more important when majorities are small.  They need to be cohesive.  And their members need to be fully tied in and signed up to spending cuts.

Paul Goodman MP


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